Dead Block Review

Dead Block fills the zombie apocalypse with rampant vandalism and ingenious booby traps, yet somehow the result is exceedingly dull.

The Good

  • Enjoyable array of booby traps.

The Bad

  • Majority of gameplay consists of the same repetitive actions
  • When you are doing great, it’s boring
  • When you are doing poorly, it’s frustrating
  • Timing-based minigames hampered by delay.

It’s no secret that the zombie apocalypse has been in vogue for the past few years and experiencing a multimedia renaissance that would warm George A. Romero’s heart. Dead Block is the latest downloadable attempt to reap this fertile harvest by cultivating a different take on the undead end times. On each level, you find yourself trapped in a building. You must explore this building, gather resources, barricade windows, and set traps to fend off the incoming zombie hordes until you can kill them all with rock and roll. It’s a strange, campy twist on survival horror, and the clever traps that the three playable characters can deploy fuel some light strategy. Unfortunately, “light” is as deep as the strategy gets. Furthermore, almost all of the actions you perform involve simply holding a button, mashing a button, or tapping a button in an ill-calibrated timing challenge. Repetition creeps in from all sides, and boredom sets in for the duration. Even adding a few local friends into the mix doesn’t liven things up, making Dead Block one zombie apocalypse that’s best left unsurvived.

When zombies attack, forget chainsaws and shotguns. Just grab a ladle and start swinging.

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Every level in Dead Block plays out in much the same way. You find yourself inside of a building littered with objects and furniture. Zombies lurk outside of the building, eager to gain egress through windows. You must destroy furniture to get wood to build barricades. You must also search objects for items required to beat the level, access new rooms, utilize environmental hazards, and build specialty traps. If zombies get in your face, you can kill them in hand-to-rotting-hand combat, but it’s preferable to destroy them with traps and hazards. Once you’ve collected three key items or killed a set number of zombies, you can beat the level by playing a rhythm game or hitting a button, respectively. You can earn medals for destroying all the furniture, searching all the objects, killing a set number of zombies, and remaining alive throughout the level, all of which add to your score and improve your standing on the online leaderboards.

Initially, it seems like balancing resource collection with zombie slaying could provide an engaging challenge. If you plan things well, you can wreak havoc on the interior decor of each room while letting judiciously placed traps destroy or weaken incoming zombies. Once the room is clear, you can waltz out with your pockets full of resources, and either seal the area off or funnel the undead to specific, booby-trapped doorways. Depending on which character you are using and how far in the campaign you are, there are a variety of fun traps to deploy. Some kill zombies outright, like the microwave and bomb traps. Other traps soften the undead up by turning them into weak old zombies or smacking their skulls with a rolling pin. Still others co-opt the zombies to your purposes by sending them on furniture-smashing sprees or making them targets for the predations of their own kind. Though things can get hectic, it isn’t hard to get into the groove on a level and feel like a zombie-annihilating machine.

The neat satisfaction of such skilled play, however, is doused by boredom. When things are going well, you are running a few feet at a time and then tapping the circle button to destroy a piece of furniture (a barely animated visual disappointment) or alternately pulling the triggers to search an object (always the same lame junk-flinging slideshow). These repetitive actions take up the majority of your time, and you interrupt them only to reset a trap or reinforce a barricade. Both of these tasks occur automatically once you initiate them, but you can accelerate them by either holding a button or tapping a button when a sliding indicator reaches the target zone (or more accurately, slightly before it reaches the zone to compensate for input delay). You spend almost all your time in Dead Block smashing, searching, and setting traps, and all of these actions are boring. Even attempts to liven things up go awry, as illustrated by the poorly calibrated end-of-level minigame that plays like an insult to the memory of Guitar Hero.

Misery loves company.

Misery loves company.

If your plan gets fouled up, you soon find yourself beset by more zombies than your relatively weak melee attack (and constitution) can handle. You can attack zombies by tapping the R1 button, but you have to run in, hit one a few times, and then duck out before you get smacked, or else you won’t survive long. It’s all the excitement of smashing furniture with the extra fun of clumsily running back and forth in a cramped space! Using environmental hazards like jukeboxes (most nearby zombies dance themselves to death) and televisions (all nearby zombies are enthralled and stand motionless) can help you handle the hordes better, as can each character’s smart bomb ability. These abilities stun or kill a certain number of zombies, and they can be upgraded by searching objects. There is an inherent satisfaction in clearing out a group of zombies with your abilities, but it also means you have more time to get the dull smash-search-set grind back on track.

The 10 levels of the campaign can also be played cooperatively with up to three local players, and having other humans on your team makes you much more efficient (the AI allies who intermittently join you on single-player levels only help out in limited ways). Unfortunately, the more efficient your team is, the clearer it becomes that Dead Block is shallow and repetitive to the core. The campy B-movie vibe and cartoon aesthetic aren’t good enough to add much appeal, and the few clever ideas get lost in a sea of relentless button tapping. In an actual zombie apocalypse, Dead Block’s simple zombie-clearing tactics and industrious fortification construction would be desirable, but in this video game zombie apocalypse, they’re just dull.

By Chris Watters

Skullgirls Review

Skullgirls is a risque fighter that wraps sex appeal and smooth jazz skintight around a smartly crafted fighting system.

The Good

  • Well crafted fighting system
  • Each character feels distinct
  • Excellent tutorials that teach fighting theory
  • GGPO still a winner for online play.

The Bad

  • No spectator and replay support
  • Lacks character-specific command lists.

The first thing anyone notices in Skullgirls is the hypersexualization of its all-female cast. In this 2D fighter, the skirts are short, the legs are long, and the chests are, well, you get the idea. It’s a treat for some, but for those who scoff at this most basic of carnal pleasures, take heed: behind all the eye candy rests a well-designed fighting engine that addresses several annoyances found in other contemporary fighters. Developer Reverge Labs has built a game whose pacing feels akin to Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3–with a little less overwhelming insanity. Skullgirls saves its spectacle for the characters, while keeping its combat fast and focused.

Witness the rise and fall of Peacock in this snippet from Skullgirls’ story mode.

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Skullgirls lets you bring one to three characters to a fight, even if your opponent chooses a different combination. These different combinations provide interesting variability to how the game plays. A single character can deal and withstand more damage than those of a two- or three-person team; however, that single character loses the ability to call for assist attacks, to link hyper combos, or to recover lost health while tagged out. This creates a natural balance to keep one combination from having an overwhelming advantage over the other two.

Adjustable team sizes naturally scale the complexity as well. Having more characters on a team means more variables to internalize during a fight. A lone, superpowered fighter is easier to manage than three average-strength ones. This trade-off between raw strength and versatility helps accommodate a wider skill range. This isn’t to say that Skullgirls lacks depth. Each character feels wildly distinct from the rest. Even the two projectile-focused fighters–Peacock and Parasol–handle differently. Peacock fills the screen with fast-moving projectiles, while Parasol uses timed explosives and long-range pokes. With only eight characters, Skullgirls’ roster may not be as large as other fighters–but its combatants are nicely varied.

The underlying fighting system is equally rich, with several smart and simple alternatives for typical fighting game annoyances such as high/low unblockables and infinite loops. An unblockable refers to a combination of simultaneous attacks that are impossible to guard against. These are accepted in some tag fighters, but Skullgirls automatically protects you if you block part of an unblockable combination. Infinite loops are just what they sound like: attack strings that can be repeated indefinitely. Most fighters patch these out on a case-by-case basis, but Skullgirls just says “no” with its Infinity Breaker. This quick, invulnerable attack is available only when an infinite is detected, it deals no damage, and it knocks the opponent away.

These and other design choices let the game be a little more flexible with what tools it gives you. Assist attacks are a great example. In Skullgirls you can enter a custom assist attack–and it can be any single attack you want. Normally this would lead to some nasty combinations, but the game doesn’t have to worry about such exploits, since there are hard stops in place to prevent them. This opens up a lot more creative freedom for team synergy and combo potential. Skullgirls is filled with these little touches that should make any fighting fan happy.

Beep! Beep! Double is going to take you for a ride.

Beep! Beep! Double is going to take you for a ride.

If a healthy dose of cleavage also puts a smile on your face, then Skullgirls can provide. The game is a well-shaken cocktail of violence and erotica served with a side of smooth jazz. Blow for blow, it pairs devastating uppercuts with all the up-skirt shots a hot-blooded enthusiast can handle. It’s difficult not to have an extreme reaction, whether positive or negative, to some of these character designs. It’s a risque style that weighs potential alienation against exposure. And while exaggerated, hourglass figures aren’t new to video games, their sheer abundance here can be embarrassing for members of all sexes.

The Skullgirls universe is centered on a malevolent MacGuffin called the Skull Heart. Each character has her own reason for hunting it, and the narrative tries harder than most fighting game narratives to establish reasonable motivations. The story mode is a typical collection of fights interspersed with dialogue. These scenes are filled with unique artwork that fleshes out the vast array of supporting characters working behind the scenes. Arcade mode is available as well, and it pits you against a randomly generated series of teams leading up to the final boss.

While the story is serviceable, the tutorials are where the game excels. They explain some fundamental concepts that have gone unspoken in many other fighting games (the basics of movement, defending against cross-ups, and capitalizing on hit confirmation) and give you a better understanding of how to approach a fight. They can help you succeed not only in Skullgirls, but in other fighting games as well. However, one critical element is missing: character-specific move lists. It’s an unnecessary hurdle for players who are unfamiliar with these characters, which is just about everyone. Hopefully a list will be patched in later, but for now its absence is missed.

Once your skills are ready, you can take your game online for some competitive play. The backbone of Skullgirls’ online experience is the tried-and-true GGPO technology. Featured in Capcom’s Street Fighter III: Third Strike Online Edition, GGPO effectively hides Internet lag by substituting slight input lag to compensate. The result it a fight that seems lag-free, though your character might not always attack on cue. Thankfully, as long as your connection is in the green or yellow range, you won’t be experiencing much lag of any kind.

Skullgirls' tutorials will actually teach you a thing or two about how to fight.

Skullgirls’ tutorials will actually teach you a thing or two about how to fight.

Unfortunately, the game lacks some of the modern conveniences in other fighters. Spectating support is one, which the game works around by restricting room size to only two combatants. Replay support is also absent, which is especially unfortunate since observing others is an excellent way to improve your own skills. Still, at the oh-so-attractive price of $15, Skullgirls is a great value. Its strong fighting system can stand toe-to-toe with genre regulars, while the lessons taught in the tutorials should be adopted in all fighting games. There’s plenty of fun to be had with the lovely ladies of Skullgirls, as long as you don’t mind a little jiggling along the way.

By Maxwell McGee

The Walking Dead: Episode 5 – No Time Left Review

The Walking Dead series shambles to a brief but moving conclusion that doesn’t quite live up to the gruesome brilliance of earlier chapters.

The Good

  • Closing scene finishes off the story in heart-wrenching fashion
  • Claustrophobic atmosphere with hordes of zombies all around you
  • Some great moments with the script and voice acting.

The Bad

  • Shortest episode of the series, clocking not much more than an hour
  • Disappointing final confrontation.

It may have started with a hungry growl, but The Walking Dead adventure game series goes out with a soft groan in No Time Left. The fifth and final episode in the adventure franchise based on the Robert Kirkman-created graphic novels closes off the saga of Lee Everett and friends with a tearjerker of a conclusion that is suitably gloomy and moving, if not entirely satisfying when compared to the gory brilliance of the preceding chapters. The story veered off track in the last episode, losing a fair bit of steam after the introduction of an offputting new plot device–and the whole thing comes to a halt in this brief final act that lacks the devastating impact of the earlier episodes, despite more than a few heartbreaking moments. (Note: The following text includes information that could be considered minor spoilers for The Walking Dead series.)

Walkers be a-walkin'.

Walkers be a-walkin’.

No Time Left picks up where its predecessor, Around Every Corner, left off. Episode four ended with the ragtag gang of zombie apocalypse survivors stuck in Savannah, Georgia, after the notion of securing a boat and heading out to the undead-free high seas didn’t work out as planned. Plucky ragamuffin Clementine is still missing, the victim of an abduction that concluded the preceding episode.

The abduction still feels tacked on, a phony way to take things back to the beginning when it was just Lee and Clem on their own. The plot has moved off on a tangent, with a new villain and a corny chase for a missing child that is miles removed from the brutal focus on survival that made the first three episodes so engrossing. The narrative flow feels forced. Too many core characters have died, and it feels like the game is being brought to a close largely because this is the final episode, not because the story is coming to a natural ending.

Aspects of No Time Left also play fast and loose with the premise that the game responds to your actions, although the game varies enough based on how you play that you may or may not see any given inconsistency. At the start of play, for instance, you head out after Clementine with a buddy or four, depending on how good you’ve been getting along with everyone. But after some quick scenes, you might wind up back at square one, and a group that may have just told you to get lost could immediately offers to pitch in and help find your little buddy.

It's been that kind of day for Lee.

It’s been that kind of day for Lee.

Personalities and motivations can be thrown out the window, depending on the course you pursue. A previously selfish Kenny might suddenly grow a conscience, forgiving a fellow survivor for kicking off a tragic chain of events, and then risk his life to play hero. Yet the scenario might be much more organic should you have taken a different path in previous episodes. In that case, Kenny’s motivations are a much more realistic blend of tough-guy bravado and self-importance, which is consistent with how he’s behaved throughout the series. You might also witness some touching moments with Kenny when he finally must confront his own selfishness. Some of these conversations also flesh out the characters of Omid and Christa, who were previously as dull as dishwater.

Everything moves at a frenetic pace. You can zip through this episode in little more than an hour or so, less time than it takes to complete any previous episode. Part of the speed comes from the lack of challenge in the quick-choice combat and button-mashing action sequences. Nothing should require more than a single attempt, save a fight near the end of the game with a gun-wielding nutcase.

The Walking Dead series shambles to a brief but moving conclusion that doesn’t quite live up to the gruesome brilliance of earlier chapters.

The Good

  • Closing scene finishes off the story in heart-wrenching fashion
  • Claustrophobic atmosphere with hordes of zombies all around you
  • Some great moments with the script and voice acting.

The Bad

  • Shortest episode of the series, clocking not much more than an hour
  • Disappointing final confrontation.

There isn’t a great deal to look at or listen to, either. Visuals are limited, mainly because most of the game takes place in just a few rooms and on a couple of narrow streets crowded with zombies. The game does a great job of making you feel hemmed in by undead, though. Crowds of the shambling stinkers pack the streets, alleys, and homes of Savannah. You can always hear them groaning away, and even when you are safely indoors, they are sometimes visible right outside, shuffling past windows as an ever-present threat. The Xbox 360 edition suffers once again from a murky color palette (though this problem is less drastic than before), and the PS3 version gets occasionally choppy, but the production values are largely identical across platforms.

Shambling horrors and empty hallways.

Shambling horrors and empty hallways.

Dialogue might be somewhat restricted, largely due to the ever-shrinking supporting cast, though you may still experience moving, in-depth conversations depending on the composition of your group. The conversations that you do have seem to have been speeded up. Less time is available to choose answers, because you’re hustling for reasons that are clear if you played episode four. There are some great moments in the script, however, particularly a gruesome surgical sequence that recalls events from the graphic novel.

The voice acting also remains superb. The acting and dialogue are better here than in the last couple of episodes, in spite of the inconsistent characterizations. Characters get along better here than they did earlier, and there is more depth and nuance to their lines. This is especially true with Kenny, who is much more rational now in comparison with the whining caricature of the last two episodes. Omid and Christa share more of the spotlight during the search for Clem, too, which makes them finally seem like worthwhile additions to the cast.

All aboard!

All aboard!

The finale makes an attempt to tie the game’s villain to earlier events, but the explanations aren’t solid enough to make his actions plausible. The character feels like a deus ex machina figure plopped in to assess Lee’s failings as a human being and look back at the whole bloody mess that has unfolded since the dead woke up absolutely starving. This angle was awkwardly shoehorned in as a big surprise at the end of episode three and never properly integrated into the plot, which was previously doing just fine by concentrating on evading zombies and finding an escape route via sailing away from Savannah. The villain is creepy, at least, and a nifty scene following the credits brings everything to a suitably uncertain conclusion that is either heartwarming or downright spooky. Either way, the stage is aptly set for a second series.

No Time Left provides a fulfilling sense of closure to this first series of Walking Dead episodes, even while it strays from the story and characters that were developed in the earlier episodes. After starting strongly with three fantastic chapters, the plot got derailed once the group reached Savannah in episode four and never fully regained its momentum. Still, the complete package of five episodes forms a great adventure when looked at in its entirety. The whole game features memorable characters, countless scenes packing big emotional wallops, and plenty of grisly gross-out horror, so it has to be highly recommended despite a few stumbles near the finish line.

By Brett Todd

PixelJunk SideScroller Review

A neon retro sheen doesn’t mask the flaws in this short and basic shooter.

The Good

  • Gorgeous neon art style
  • Creative stage designs
  • Impressive boss fights.

The Bad

  • Short length and limited replay
  • Weapon button mapping is awkward
  • Multiplayer co-op isn’t well implemented.

From the hypnotic neon landscape and constant barrage of spraying bullets to the way the playing field bends around at the edges of the screen to replicate the look of an old arcade cabinet monitor, everything about the latest entry in the ever-creative PixelJunk series from Q-Games seems designed to push your nostalgia button. That’s not a bad thing, but looking past the allure of the dazzling visual design reveals a short, minimalistic arcade shooter with a few faults that almost outweigh the fun. PixelJunk SideScroller’s twitchy gameplay evokes fond memories of playing games like Life Force and Gradius, but it feels weak when compared to the PixelJunk Shooter games that preceded it in the series.

The luminous chaos ramps up as you progress.

The luminous chaos ramps up as you progress.

Because it’s based on an unlockable secret stage found in the previous PixelJunk game, it’s not surprising that SideScroller cannibalizes the exact same spacecraft, some of the same foes, and a few other hazards from PixelJunk Shooter 2. Familiar environmental elements like flammable gas, water, ice, and lava also make a return. Taking damage once overheats your craft, and you can restore your two-hit health meter by flying through water to cool down as in the past two PixelJunk entries. But whereas the two Shooter games are geared more toward exploration and puzzle work, SideScroller is all about the straight-up action. Like the old-school classics that the game pays homage to, you pilot your small ship through forced scrolling stages while battling waves of enemy fighters, bullet-spewing sentry cannons, and more elaborate boss encounters. The chaotic dodge-and-shoot gameplay is enjoyable yet straightforward; it’s kill or be killed. Unfortunately, some design elements make it hard to do your job.

Your ship’s three main weapons options–machine guns, lasers, and bombs–offer a limited means of cutting through the swarms of baddies that come your way. Each can be upgraded independently up to five times to boost its power and reach. Sadly, none of the weapons are totally effective against every foe you face, and switching between them in the heat of combat is unwieldy at best. Instead of triggering each attack with a different button press, you’re stuck with cycling through them one at a time using a single button. To make matters worse, every switch is accompanied by an irritating female robot voice whose grating nature further encourages you to pick a favorite and stick with it through much of the game. There’s also a chargeable ramming attack, but it’s more effective at accidentally getting you killed than taking down foes. The game’s checkpoint system sometimes works against you as well. Running out of lives toward the tail end of a stage lets you restart from the last checkpoint infinitely, but it robs you of all your power-ups and makes it tough to progress without starting over. While these limitations do get in the way, it’s not that difficult to look past them and still have fun.

Co-op is more frustrating than rewarding.

Co-op is more frustrating than rewarding.

SideScroller’s biggest redeeming quality is its creative, colorful presentation. Each captivating little area is simply beautiful. The initial simplicity of the glowing geometric stage designs soon melts away into complex networks that spread throughout the foreground and background. There’s a lot to soak in, even if you have precious little time for sightseeing with all of the flying bullets and other dangers to plow through. Levels feature a good blend of natural and mechanical obstacles, like crushing pistons, jets of flame, falling rocks, and combustible gas. The boss battles waiting at the end of each run of stages ramp up the clever level designs in intense, multifaceted encounters that are truly impressive. What’s disappointing is it takes so little time to cut a path to the final credits. SideScroller’s three main stages feature four short levels apiece, and there’s an unlockable final boss battle stage too. Tougher difficulty settings featuring crazy visual filters that change the look of the gameworld and frustrating multiplayer co-op that has you sharing limited lives don’t offer much in the way of replay incentive.

As visually stimulating as it may be, PixelJunk SideScroller’s supershort length and bare-bones arcade shooter gameplay drag down its retro charm a few notches. While fleshing out the bonus stage from PixelJunk Shooter 2 into a stand-alone game wasn’t a bad idea, this brief download flounders under clunky implementation. It doesn’t hold up well next to its more robust brethren.

By Nathan Meunier

Retro City Rampage Review

The ride’s a little rough at times, but Retro City Rampage’s blend of open-world action and 8-bit style is goofy, novel fun.

The Good

  • Old-school graphics infuse a contemporary genre with new life
  • Colorful world is fun to explore and to cause trouble in
  • Packed with nostalgic 80s references
  • Good assortment of enjoyable side activities
  • Great visual customization options.

The Bad

  • Missions stumble when trying to evoke specific games
  • Unfair difficulty spikes
  • Somewhat stiff controls.

Back in 1987, when the NES was at the peak of its reign, the video game world was not yet ready for the open-world urban crime adventure. But today, a quarter century later, Retro City Rampage lets you experience what the genre might have been like if it had been introduced on that now-primitive platform. In terms of its gameplay, it’s often not quite faithful enough to the games of the era that inspired it, and in terms of its difficulty, it’s sometimes too faithful. But all in all, Retro City Rampage is an enjoyable experience in which old meets new to create something both fresh and familiar.

Niko Bellic wishes he could get his hands on a hover suit like this and stomp some civilians!

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In Retro City Rampage’s Story mode, you play as Player, a low-ranking henchman in a supercriminal’s army. Following an introductory series of stages that references The Dark Knight, Mario Bros., Mega Man 2, Frogger, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Super Mario Bros. 2, Back to the Future, and much more, you’re set free in the city of Theftropolis to spend your time as you see fit. You can complete story missions or ignore them, and spend your time causing chaos and competing in the score-based challenges scattered all over town.

Every mission in Retro City Rampage’s Story mode skewers video games, movies, or TV shows of the 80s. If you have any reverence for icons of 80s pop culture, don’t be surprised if versions of those icons show up in RCR and are made to suffer some indignities. (The Ghostbusters, for instance, are spoofed here as the Go-Go Busters. Their job is even messier and nastier than catching and occasionally getting slimed by ghosts.) Too often, the game is raunchy just for the sake of being raunchy, without any cleverness to actually make its off-color gags funny. But the game throws so much at the wall that, while most of it doesn’t stick, enough does to make for a good number of laughs, and there’s some particularly scathing humor about indie game development and major publishers.

Can you help Player become the champion of this familiar urban environment?

Can you help Player become the champion of this familiar urban environment?

What with the danger of being run over as you stroll down the sidewalk or being stomped on by criminals flying around in hover suits, Theftropolis doesn’t seem like a nice place to live. It is, however, a pleasure to look at, particularly if you have a soft spot in your heart for 8-bit worlds. The pixelated residents of Theftropolis are a wonderfully diverse bunch. Despite being quite tiny, they have a good deal of personality, thanks to their vibrant colors, their big hair, and jaunty hats–not to mention their expressive animations as they strut down the street, breakdance or otherwise pass the time.

The city has at least as much personality as its residents. Everywhere you look, there are references on shop signs and billboards to 80s video games and other pop culture artifacts. For that extra dose of nostalgia, an impressive assortment of color modes lets you make the game look as if it’s running on a wide range of 80s gaming and computer hardware; a CGA mode, for example, severely limits the game’s color palette and dominates it with blue and purple, recalling the visuals on early Apple computers. There’s also a fine selection of borders that can make the game look like it’s being played on an old TV, an arcade cabinet, or other setups, with optional scanlines to help sell the illusion. Regardless of your visual preference, the catchy 8-bit music is sure to please, and would have been right at home in an NES game.

Well, that settles it. Video games are art.

Well, that settles it. Video games are art.

Unfortunately, as alluring as the city is, getting around Theftropolis isn’t always enjoyable. Player moves sluggishly until he gets a bit of momentum going, and although all the vehicles around you are yours for the taking, many of them are too slow to be much fun to drive. Still, there are some speedy little numbers to cruise around in. The two driving control schemes let you select between an option in which you use a button to accelerate and in which pushing left or right turns your vehicle to its left or right regardless of which way you’re driving onscreen, and an option in which you push the thumbstick up to move up, down to move down, and so on. This second, far less realistic option allows for more responsive, turn-on-a-dime controls and more enjoyable vehicular shenanigans as a result.

The ride’s a little rough at times, but Retro City Rampage’s blend of open-world action and 8-bit style is goofy, novel fun.

The Good

  • Old-school graphics infuse a contemporary genre with new life
  • Colorful world is fun to explore and to cause trouble in
  • Packed with nostalgic 80s references
  • Good assortment of enjoyable side activities
  • Great visual customization options.

The Bad

  • Missions stumble when trying to evoke specific games
  • Unfair difficulty spikes
  • Somewhat stiff controls.

The Story mode’s 62 stages sometimes reference specific games not only in their plot setups and characters but in their concepts, and this often ends up being a liability. One mission is modeled on Paperboy, for instance, but the controls don’t feel anything like Paperboy. They feel like Retro City Rampage, and RCR’s controls weren’t designed for gameplay like Paperboy’s, so the mission doesn’t actually capture the feel, or the fun, of Paperboy. Players who are too young to remember Paperboy won’t get any joy from the reference, and players who do remember Paperboy will be frustrated by the way the gameplay fails to capture what actually made Paperboy enjoyable. That’s a recurring issue throughout Retro City Rampage’s story mode. Its attempts to mimic Paperboy, Tapper, Contra and other games usually end up feeling wrong. The one exception is Smash TV, which RCR’s controls allow it to passably imitate.

After delivering some quality literature to the people, Player works on his golf swing. Verily, he is a man of refined pursuits.

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Like many 8-bit games, RCR’s difficulty is inconsistent, and sometimes quite high. There are times when the challenge is welcome; the final boss fight can be thumb-blistering and rage-inducing, but when you finally get the pattern down, your victory is rewarding, and you come away feeling like, having mastered the battle, you could now win it again and again without breaking a sweat.

But at other times, the difficulty is simply unfair. On one mission, for instance, you need to follow the not-so-heroic superhero Biffman across town. The game humorously parodies the commonplace missions in open-world games in which you must tail other vehicles without getting too close or too far away. Player finds the task so boring that you must not only follow Biffman but must also frequently stop for coffee, lest the sheer boredom of the mission put Player to sleep. It’s an amusing concept, but frustration arises when you must swing by a drive-thru restaurant. Sometimes, pedestrians mill about in your narrow path. Hit them, and the police are likely to jump on you, resulting in instant mission failure and sending you back to the mission’s start. Wait for them to clear out and you lose Biffman, resulting in the same thing. Sure, such difficulty issues occurred often in the 8-bit era, but the extra layer of nostalgia doesn’t keep them from being frustrating here.

You can customize the visuals in a number of ways, though perhaps some color schemes of the past are better off forgotten.

You can customize the visuals in a number of ways, though perhaps some color schemes of the past are better off forgotten.

But when it sticks to simple rampaging and havoc-wreaking, Retro City Rampage is goofy, cathartic fun. To use weapons, you can either press a button and make use of a lock-on system, or use the right thumbstick to aim and shoot as in a typical dual-stick shooter. There’s an enjoyable variety of guns and melee weapons to use. Wild power-ups like speed shoes and unlockable abilities like a ground-shaking super stomp keep the action pleasantly absurd.

And outside of the Story mode, there’s a good deal to do that benefits rather than suffers from RCR’s retro trappings. There are secrets aplenty to discover in the forms of warp pipes to secret areas and cheat codes you can enter, among other things, which makes exploring Theftropolis a rewarding pursuit. You can stop by Nolan’s Arcade to play a few simple but fun arcade games that reward you with content bonuses if you do well. And there are dozens of pick-up-and-play challenges which give you a quick burst of outrageous carnage and allow you to compete for a high score on the leaderboards.

A Bit.Trip game is among the offerings at Nolan's Arcade.

A Bit.Trip game is among the offerings at Nolan’s Arcade.

You can also customize your character with a vast assortment of faces, tattoos and hairstyles, many of which have clever references worked into them. (Get the “Dennis Kooper” cut and you can finally live the dream of having hair like Dennis Hopper had when he played King Koopa in Super Mario Bros.!) Unfortunately, the in-game map doesn’t show the locations of shops, so locating the barber shop or other store that had the particular cosmetic item you’re looking for can take some time, until you have the lay of the land memorized.

Finally, there’s the Free Roam mode, in which you can cavort around Theftropolis as Player or a number of other unlockable characters. And with one purchase, you get the game for both the PlayStation 3 and the Vita, complete with cross-play functionality that lets you swap your progress between platforms. Retro City Rampage is a good amount of game for your $15, and if you’re old enough to remember the 80s, its shortcomings will be outweighed by the pleasures of jacking cars, spotting references, and discovering secrets in its enticing 8-bit city. It’s appropriate that there are so many time travel references in Retro City Rampage. Like the cold response Marty McFly got from his failed attempt to introduce 80s-style guitar licks to the people of the 1950s, a game like Retro City Rampage might have been too much for players of the 1980s to handle. But now, its time has come, and it’s well worth experiencing, warts and all.

By Carolyn Petit

One Piece: Pirate Warriors Review

Zany flair puts a bit of wind in its sails, but One Piece: Pirate Warriors is still a shallow, tedious game.

The Good

  • Wild attack animations.

The Bad

  • Dull combat
  • Dry storytelling
  • Too many actions handled via button prompts.

Monkey D. Luffy and his crew of Straw Hat Pirates have used their zany personalities and unusual powers to sail to manga domination. But the inventiveness that has helped One Piece stand out from its manga and anime brethren is barely evident in One Piece: Pirate Warriors. This shallow game spends most of its time doing a fair imitation of the tired combat of Dynasty Warriors games, occasionally changing things up with rote puzzles and with grappling sequences that you don’t have much control over. Wacky animations lend Pirate Warriors a bit of superficial personality, but underneath the surface, this is a dull knockoff of an uninspired series.

It doesn’t matter much what you do against enemies like these. You’re guaranteed to win.

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Main Log mode recounts the adventures of the Straw Hat Pirates across the One Piece storyline. It doesn’t capture much of the excitement of that storyline, though. The plot is largely advanced through scenes in which characters talk about their adventures while a static image of them enjoying a picnic is displayed. The Japanese-language voices are overflowing with energy, but the accompanying, unmoving visuals make the story fall flat. If you come to Pirate Warriors not already knowing the tale of Luffy’s adventures, the storytelling here certainly won’t reveal what all the fuss is about.

And the gameplay doesn’t make up for the excitement that’s missing from the story. You spend most of your time playing as Luffy, running around battlefields to complete objectives. You’re frequently swarmed by enemies, but these foes pose no challenge whatsoever. They exist simply to be clobbered by you. So you push some buttons, pull off some wild-looking attacks, and defeat them by the dozens. Different button combinations make Luffy use his rubbery limbs in different ways. He can charge forward in a flurry of fists, swing his legs around like a whip, or slingshot himself forward into enemy crowds. And by holding a button down, you can make him charge up certain attacks. But most enemies demand so little from you that there’s little incentive to use one attack over another. And the constant barrage of powerful-looking attacks with elaborate animations that Luffy deals out quickly dilutes their visual impact down to nothing.

From time to time, more powerful enemies appear who require a bit more effort to defeat. You might need to evade some of their techniques, and rely on your own devastating special attacks to defeat them. These special attacks have even more elaborate animations, but they take no skill to perform. As long as your special attack meter has charges in it, you just hold down a button, and the attack takes care of itself. Watching Luffy’s bizarre, stretchy attacks is fun for a short while, but they don’t disguise how dull the underlying mechanics are.

 You can use Luffy's Gum Gum Balloon ability to reflect cannonballs.

You can use Luffy’s Gum Gum Balloon ability to reflect cannonballs.

Frustratingly, challenge sometimes comes not from combat or other things you have direct control over, but from failure conditions that require you to keep other members of your crew in fighting shape. It’s difficult to simultaneously protect allies who are in one spot and run all over the place completing mission objectives that are scattered across the map, and when clueless allies get themselves pummeled in your absence, you’ll wish you could just issue commands telling them to keep themselves out of trouble.

Main Log mode occasionally puts you in control of some of these allies, and their special attacks differ significantly from Luffy’s. Nico Robin can create arms that rise up out of the ground and pummel enemies, for instance, and Nami can summon lightning bolts and whirlwinds to aid her in battle. But this diversity of abilities doesn’t bring a feeling of variety to the gameplay. Mashing buttons is still enough to deal with onslaughts of enemies, and even bosses don’t require you to change up your approach.

When you’re not fighting, you’re often grappling and swinging around levels, using Luffy’s rubbery limbs to reach areas that no ordinary pirate could. However, all this movement is anything but a pleasant change of pace from combat. You don’t directly control Luffy as he does all of this fun-looking stuff, swinging through the air or grabbing onto a soaring cannonball that carries him over the water. Rather, you just respond to displayed button prompts and watch Luffy do all the rest. This makes you feel alienated from the action, and has you longing for the relative immediacy of battle. Other variations from the core combat also fail to inject any life into the game. Dull puzzles have you doing things like rotating statues, and one stage slows you down by making you carry an injured Nami around and find places to set her down before you can jump into the thick of it.

That looks enjoyable. Too bad you have so little control over it.

That looks enjoyable. Too bad you have so little control over it.

As you progress through Main Log, you unlock more characters you can use in Another Log mode, which puts the focus on characters other than Luffy. And online support lets you join forces with another player to complete chapters. But no matter how you play it, One Piece: Pirate Warriors is a tedious game; the energy of its characters and animations contrasts sharply with the tiresome gameplay. This 50-dollar, 11-gigabyte game isn’t worth the cost or the significant amount of time it takes to download. If you’re looking to spend some quality time with Luffy and his pirate crew, you’re better off sticking to the pages of a manga or the scenes of an anime.

By Carolyn Petit

Closure Review

By creating intriguing rules and pushing its ideas to impossible places, Closure cements itself as a great puzzler.

The Good

  • Imaginative light/dark relationship
  • A wide variety of clever puzzles
  • Smooth difficulty curve
  • Well-realized aesthetics.

The Bad

  • Small control issues.

Unimaginable horrors hide in the darkness. Is there a monster lurking just out of sight? Or maybe a deadly trap poised to cut you to shreds? In Closure, such conventional fears never surface. Rather, it’s the darkness itself that poses the biggest threat. To step off the lightened path into the gaping, black abyss is to know death up close and personal. One misstep and you’re swallowed whole. The rules defy the very basics of reality, opening the door for a diverse assortment of puzzling rooms that leave you gasping at their sheer inventiveness. Death greets you when light fades away, and it’s through this dynamic that Closure establishes itself as a smart and perplexing puzzler.

At least the boxes float.

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Four legs, two arms, one horn. It’s a creature that should stay out of view from prying eyes, in the shelter of the darkness. Despite its off-putting appearance, this is not a beast to be feared: it’s the protagonist. Walking with crablike grace, it picks its way through the blackened wasteland. It’s scared of the dark, and rightfully so. Though it doesn’t utter a word, there’s a jarring humanness to its movement.. When it makes a mistake, it shrugs, a creepy caricature of human reaction to failure. Jump into one of the four worlds, and you don a mask, hiding the alien body underneath. These superficial changes make your character look human, though you’re never secure in this assessment. Unnerving imagery hides in the darkness. A lighted gazebo populated by all manner of deranged beings bursts into view when you least expect it, exposing the weird underbelly of this desolate world.

The sparse narrative threads hint at a larger story, though the details of your predicament are never explored. This trend begins in the introductory levels. Nudges push you in the right direction, but Closure avoids spelling out exactly what the rules entail. You learn for yourself, through experimentation, so you understand the underlying mechanics because you discovered them yourself, rather than having them told to you.

You stand in utter blackness. At your feet lies a sphere of light. It emits a radiant glow that hints at safety, peace. However, the darkness ahead, behind, above, below you is anything but. A prompt urges you to pick up this light source. You cradle it in your arms and walk forward. The path lights up. Where once only darkness existed, now there’s light and solid ground to walk upon. Behind you, darkness swallows what used to be a safe path. Behind you, there’s only death. So you walk forward, shining the light to slowly reveal the path before you.

Who knows what lies below.

Who knows what lies below.

Closure is built upon the relationship of light and darkness. Anything that’s visible becomes tangible. Ground and walls materialize in your view, transforming into sturdy objects that you can interact with. When the light fades away, those same constructions cease to exist. Walk across a lighted patch of ground, and no danger troubles you. Step on that same place without the protective aura of a light, and you fall into a pitch-black gulf. It’s a surreal concept that turns its nose up at the most basic ideas that form your own perception of reality. Coming to terms with the rules requires you to relax any stubborn attachment you have to the nature of existence.

Your objective is straightforward: find the door that transports you to the next level. But getting to the door isn’t always enough to move onward. You might need a special key to get inside. No light is emitted from these objects, so you have to improvise. Shine a beam of light on the ground so you can carry the key to the door, or juggle a light source to keep the key away from the darkness. If it falls into the inky abyss, you fail the level, so tread carefully.

By creating intriguing rules and pushing its ideas to impossible places, Closure cements itself as a great puzzler.

The Good

  • Imaginative light/dark relationship
  • A wide variety of clever puzzles
  • Smooth difficulty curve
  • Well-realized aesthetics.

The Bad

  • Small control issues.

Experimentation brings incredible rewards. When a pillar blocks your path, adjust the light source until it fades out of view. Now you can pass by it unhindered, as long as you can see ground on the other side. When you happen upon a mysterious hole in the ground, drop your light source down the chute. The shadow that forms beneath your feet means you follow the falling light source down to the bottom. What waits for you down below is impossible to know until you land there. Is there a ledge to catch you? Or a bottomless pit that inhales your plummeting body? There’s only one way to find out.

Practice makes perfect.

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Though your move set is limited, a wealth of puzzling situations await. Your masked creature can carry items, tilt lamps, push boxes, and perform a modest leap. Special sconces provide variety. Place a light source in one of these and it might illuminate different parts of the level. Or it might turn one of your precious balls of light into two. Some sconces travel along a predetermined path once you place a light bulb inside them. Stand on a rising spotlight and a temporary elevator is created. You rise to higher ground, then pluck the light source from its holder. Closure introduces new ideas slowly, building on your repertoire without ever overwhelming you. Every puzzle introduces something unique to keep you invested, and the smooth difficulty curve ensures that you thoroughly understand the basic rules before challenging conundrums temporarily halt your progress.

Controls function admirably in the slow-paced situations that dominate Closure. However, when speed is imperative, their lack of precision becomes apparent. In certain segments, you have to place a light source in a sconce and then quickly pick up a key before you’re cast into darkness. Press the interact button, and you might pick up the already placed light source, or nothing at all. It takes a bit of finagling to ensure you’re picking up the right object, and losing those precious seconds could mean instant death. Other times, you slide off slanted platforms that should be able to bear your weight. These occurrences are rare and stand in sharp contrast to the normal manner in which death greets you.

Failure is predominantly your fault in Closure. Tilt a lamp to light a path above you only to watch in horror as the platform you’re standing on fades into nothingness. Drop a light source on spiked ground, and watch it shatter into a million pieces. Knock a key into a dark hollow and it disappears. The basic concept in Closure is difficult to wrap your head around, so these mistakes are common if you’re the slightest bit impatient. But failure is not a serious setback. You immediately restart at the beginning of the level, hopefully wiser than you were the first time around.

Stay near the light-giving hydrant.

Stay near the light-giving hydrant.

Black-and-white visuals create a sharp contrast between what you can and cannot interact with. But aside from the obvious gameplay implications of such a style, the mood transports you into this world. There’s a suffocating feeling that threatens to strangle you at any moment. You fear death because it’s so prevalent. So you move slowly, take in the sights, learn the environment. And still, you fall victim to its beguiling nature. A pounding, dissonant soundtrack cements this feeling. When you’re lost in a pitch-black sea, the music hums and swirls in your head, making you fear for your safety, afraid of what could emerge in the darkness. Though there’s no combat in Closure, no enemies to run away from, there’s a frightful atmosphere that nonetheless keeps you on edge.

Closure relies heavily on its novel mechanics to create an enticing puzzler. But this is more than just a clever gimmick. The steady difficulty curve and wealth of ideas offer an uncommon experience, and the effective artistic design meshes wonderfully with these aspects. Closure is a smart, original adventure that makes you fear darkness above all else because one misstep can spell your doom.

By Tom Mc Shea

Ghostbusters: Sanctum of Slime Review

Recycled environments and mediocre gameplay overwhelm the multiplayer positives of this lackluster Ghostbusters adventure.

The Good

  • Cooperative play provides some fun
  • Ghostbusters theme song is good for a sing-along.

The Bad

  • Repetitive gameplay
  • Weak AI
  • Recycled levels
  • No drop-in for online multiplayer.

The first rule of Ghostbusters is that you don’t cross the streams. The second rule of Ghostbusters should be that any respectable game based on the franchise must always let you play the lovable quartet of Egon, Ray, Peter, and Winston. Ghostbusters: Sanctum of Slime manages to break both of these rules, all while forsaking the little touches that make similar top-down, twin-stick games so entertaining. It’s possible to find some fun in Sanctum’s four-player cooperative mode, but the combined frights of lackluster gameplay, recycled environments, and obtuse AI may scare away even the most devoted aspiring Ghostbusters.

The story, such as it is, centers on four rookie Ghostbusters who got their jobs only because the “senior team” overextended itself after a recent spike in paranormal activity. A series of cringe-worthy comic-book-style cinematics in the offline mode explain the reasons for the increase (if you’ve seen both of the movies, then you can probably already guess), and longtime fans might enjoy learning that the mad curator Janosz Poha still has a world-rending crush on Dana Barrett after 22 years. Yet, far from being memorable, the new recruits take so heavily after their employers that they seem like substandard carbon copies. For instance, the bespectacled brainiac Egon finds his spiritual clone in the like-minded Gabriel, and Ray Stantz’s wide-eyed wonder finds its counterpart in the musings of the towheaded Samuel. The parallels are always painfully obvious, and they inevitably make you wonder why these guys are in the game in place of the real crew.

Keeping your AI companions alive is often harder than defeating the actual boss.

Keeping your AI companions alive is often harder than defeating the actual boss.

The gameplay doesn’t help matters much, and the game quickly settles into a mind-numbing routine after a brief flash of promise. You prod your rookie about with your controller’s left stick, and you maintain a constant stream of attack by holding down the right. If you’re playing on a PC, then you simply drag your mouse in the direction of your foes. In a nod to variety, you’re supplied with three different types of weapons designed for enemies of particular colors. You have, of course, your trusty proton blaster, which is best used on red enemies, but you also pack a scattershot weapon for blasting yellow ghosts and a blue-based attack that gains power if you bounce the projectile off the wall. And, yes, you can cross the streams.

Most of the game’s fun comes from shifting between the three weapons during a battle, but the gimmick’s meager novelty wears thin by the fourth of the game’s 12 levels. Aside from boss battles and a periodic on-rails segment where you zap ghosts from the roof of the Ecto-4WD vehicle, Sanctum’s battles unfailingly involve the rookies walking into an area, having a gate or door lock behind them, and then needing to defeat all of the ghosts that appear in order to open an exit. This in itself wouldn’t be too bad if all of the maps didn’t repeat themselves later in the campaign with the simple addition of harder enemies. And when you consider that your three weapons occasionally seem to have no effect on an enemy even when you use the proper color, jumping into these recycled encounters can seem unfairly challenging.

Convince up to three friends to play in place of the AI either locally or online, however, and Sanctum becomes relatively enjoyable. Since most enemies can knock you out of battle with only a couple of hits, though, you might spend a good deal of time rushing over to your fallen comrades and tapping buttons to pull them back into combat. It’s not always as easy as it sounds: The PlayStation 3 and PC games are responsive enough, but the Xbox version occasionally fails to give you the revive prompt no matter how you position yourself. Yet this pales in comparison to the absence of a drop-in feature for the game’s online multiplayer. While you can cruise through the entire campaign with the same group of players, no one else can join a game in progress if one or more of your companions decide to drop out. This means that you can easily find yourself alone with three AI Ghostbusters seven levels into the campaign, and your only options are to complete the game with them or trudge back to the lobby to create a new multiplayer game.

At the higher levels, it's easy to get overwhelmed by the endless waves of ghosts.

At the higher levels, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the endless waves of ghosts.

It’s probably best to create a new game, since Sanctum’s AI stands as one of the game’s great weaknesses. While AI companions are much faster than real players when it comes to reviving fallen comrades, they exhibit an infuriating habit of running around in circles at the worst of times and often fail to use the proper weapons against ghosts of a particular color. Should you fall, they rush to your aid even when doing so means obvious death for them as well, and occasionally some streak of buggy pacifism keeps them from firing at all. This is particularly exasperating during boss battles while playing in single-player. Since most of these require keeping away from the boss and whittling down its hit points with a steady stream of proton juice, the process can take eons if the AI players aren’t pulling their weight.

Ghostbusters: Sanctum of Slime imparts very little of the charm that the franchise is known for. There are no comical voice-overs; instead, little snippets of pop-up text with forced jokes suffice for character interaction. There are no puzzles to break the monotony of combat; the only break stems from the collection of Stay Puft Marshmallow Man dolls scattered throughout most levels. The music is appropriately eerie though a little repetitive, but thankfully the famous theme song plays while you visit the title screen. Perhaps including the real Ghostbusters could have made up for these shortcomings a bit, but on the whole, the thought of spending too much time with Sanctum of Slime is far more haunting than any ghost it throws at you.

By Leif Johnson

Magic: the Gathering Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 Review

Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 offers fast, fun games of Magic: the Gathering, but is hampered by a less-than-ideal control scheme and limited deck building.

The Good

  • Easy to set up for quick sessions
  • Several different competitive modes
  • Challenge levels teach you how to take advantage of advanced mechanics
  • Great fun in multiplayer with friends.

The Bad

  • Deck construction is extremely limited
  • Dull campaign mode
  • Controls are frustrating to deal with
  • Bare bones presentation.

It’s hard to believe that Magic: The Gathering is almost 20 years old. The revolutionary collectible card game has had a massive influence on games, both tabletop and electronic alike, and it continues to drive at the forefront of an industry it established. For all of its popularity, however, it’s not an easy experience to translate into video game form. While Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 doesn’t offer all of the varied nuances and experiences that make the physical version of Magic so compelling, it does a serviceable job of translating the card game into a quick, easy-to-play format that casual players and veterans alike can enjoy–provided they can get past some of its caveats.

<img class="thumb" src="/game_img/2013/01/15/624319_20110524_embed012.jpg" alt="Amount of things that will soon be going down: a lot.” />

Amount of things that will soon be going down: a lot.

The rules of Magic: the Gathering involve players drawing magic power from varied sources, casting environment-altering spells, summoning creatures and fighters big and small, conjuring powerful magical artifacts, and using them to beat the crap out of each other. There’s far more nuance than that, of course; there are several different “colors” of spells with varied strengths and weaknesses, as well as numerous types of monsters and items with distinct traits and abilities. Magic is a strategic and competitive game that requires a great deal of forethought and reaction.

Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 simplifies things somewhat from the original card game by making the complex structure of Magic more palatable to newcomers and casual players. Rather than carefully choosing and constructing your deck of tricks card by card, you play one of several different preconstructed decks with distinct play styles, advantages, and drawbacks. As you play through the various single-player modes, you unlock new decks to use, as well as earn additional cards to augment each deck. Play itself is also streamlined and simplified, as DotP 2012 consolidates certain beginning and end phases of turns in the regular game into two “main” phases with a combat phase in between. While hardcore Magic players might balk at the changes–the inability to create a custom deck from scratch, in particular, will certainly turn off a few veterans–they help make the game a lot easier to dive into for a general audience.

Don't get cocky; it's gonna get rocky!

Don’t get cocky; it’s gonna get rocky!

There are numerous play modes available in DotP 2012. In Campaign mode you battle computer opponents, earning new decks and additional cards as you progress. In between matches are also optional, clever puzzle challenges that set up an established game situation–usually disadvantageous to you–that ask you to make smart use of the game rules and card abilities to turn it around. Going through the standard Campaign mode will also unlock Archenemy mode, which is new to the 2012 edition of the game. In this mode, you and two computer-controlled players take on a single, highly powered opponent who can bend certain rules and play powerful, environment-altering “scheme” cards each turn. There’s also Revenge mode, where the opponents you beat come back with bigger, more powerful decks. Unlike many other games in the card battle genre, there’s no overarching story or any sort of dialogue with characters going on during the campaign; you just beat one guy and move on to the next. It’s a bit of a disappointment because it would have been nice to interact, even superficially, with the world of Magic: the Gathering’s interesting characters and settings.

If you don’t feel like trudging through the campaign, there is a quick-play mode that will let you set up a game against up to four computer opponents in a standard winner-takes-all competition. The variant modes are more interesting, however; besides Archenemy, there’s also Two-Headed Giant, a two-versus-two team competition where you and a computer-controlled buddy (or a local player) combine forces and share a life pool while taking on an opposing two-player team. Competitive play against other human opponents is the biggest draw, however, and it’s done quite well. You can play either standard or ranked matches against friends or random players in any of the available game variants (though Archenemy, due to its nature, is unavailable for ranked play). Getting a group of friends together to play good-natured matches against each other or collaborate in one of the team play modes is tons of fun, but going up against random opponents is still something of a crapshoot. A common complaint in the last iteration was that players would disconnect if they started to lose a ranked match. “Cord pulling” out of a match in DotP 2012 is now counted as a loss toward a player who disconnects, but there are still other ways to grief an opponent, including stalling for as much time as possible. Online bugs also seemed to be present in rare cases, as we encountered a match where the game simply stalled forever as a player tried to activate a card ability, forcing us to concede.

The tutorials aren't much to look at, but they're invaluable for Magic newcomers.

The tutorials aren’t much to look at, but they’re invaluable for Magic newcomers.

While DotP 2012 can be a lot of fun, much of the enjoyment you potentially derive from the game comes from finding Magic: the Gathering interesting to play. The graphics are merely adequate (don’t expect any cool animations of the monsters you summon, for example) and the sound effects are nondescript and inoffensive. You also have to fight with the controls every step of the way as you attempt to enjoy the game. DotP’s control scheme feels awkward and unnatural with a controller because highlighting certain cards to zoom in and read their effect information requires choosing it like a menu selection with the analog stick–except you actually need to use the right analog stick to choose certain cards for some reason. If your opponent is casting spells, it can be extremely difficult to highlight and read the effects of the spell in the limited time before it takes effect, which leads to cases where it comes into play before you can react. Pressing buttons a split second too early or too late can lead to missed plays and annoying dialogue pop-ups.

As it stands, Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 provides a way to enjoy a simple game of Magic: the Gathering. Its limited customization options, serious control issues, and lack of extra flair keep it from being as interesting an experience as it could be, but you can still have a good time by getting a bunch of online or offline buddies together for games. And at $10, it’s certainly more affordable than going to your local card shop and buying cases of cards.

By Heidi Kemps

Dungeon Twister Review

Dungeon Twister has depth to spare, but that doesn’t entirely work in its favor.

The Good

  • Deep strategy
  • Comprehensive tutorial.

The Bad

  • Occasional crashes
  • No local multiplayer.

The problem with board games is that you have to set them up before you start and clean ‘em up when you’re done. The popular board game Dungeon Master is now out on PlayStation Network, saving you the trouble of all that work. Unfortunately, this adaptation fails to take advantage of the freedom offered by the format, with bland visuals that do little to improve on the experience of looking at an actual game board. Toss in crashes and the absence of any board game’s most important feature–local multiplayer–and this version will leave you longing for the comfort of actual cards in your hand and actual friends at your side.

It was the goblin, in the green room, with the sword.

It was the goblin, in the green room, with the sword.

Although the Dungeon Twister board game is available in multiple languages (including English) and has enjoyed success throughout the world since its original French release in 2004, there’s a good chance that you aren’t familiar with this complex dungeon-based strategy game. Fortunately, the PlayStation Network edition includes a comprehensive tutorial spread over the course of 20 introductory missions. Less fortunately, that education takes entirely too long. The game presents its various rules in a generally accessible manner that makes a bunch of different rules come together effectively. There’s really no way you’ll reach the end of the tutorial missions without an intimate knowledge of how everything works.

Yet some of the lessons could easily have been condensed, and a number of the missions don’t teach you anything new–they just have you defeating a capable rival using skills mastered in lessons up to that point, and you have to win before you can continue learning how things work. Most new missions really do introduce an important new element and force you to use new knowledge, but your artificial nemesis is dull, and the amount of time that you must invest before the game finally concedes that you know all you need to know is demoralizing.

The path of the goblin is a crooked one, surrounded by walls.

The path of the goblin is a crooked one, surrounded by walls.

The Dungeon Twister board shows a collection of rooms populated with monsters and heroes and items, and each player receives cards that determine basic things like who gets to advance how many spaces in a given turn. The overall goal is to score a certain number of victory points, which are attained by guiding your characters across a dungeon, by eliminating enough of your opponent’s pieces, or by working out some effective combination of the two actions.

A variety of factors make the rush for victory points an interesting endeavor, including doors that must be broken or opened by certain character classes, and treasure chests that you can carry across the goal line for a nice bonus. There are also armor and weapons that add to your stats so that you’re more likely to survive against a powerful foe in direct combat; plus, you can find potions to extend your turn and rope that can form makeshift bridges over floor traps that would normally slow certain warriors.

Dungeon Twister has depth to spare, but that doesn’t entirely work in its favor.

The Good

  • Deep strategy
  • Comprehensive tutorial.

The Bad

  • Occasional crashes
  • No local multiplayer.

Perhaps the game’s standout feature, once you’re comfortable with the finer points, is your ability to shift the orientation of rooms. Since individual rooms are actually miniature mazes, careful rotation can turn a straightforward charge into a strategic minefield. Suddenly, a piece of devastating equipment that was happily beyond the reach of your enemy is a mere two or three steps away from him, or a guarded path that blocks you from reaching the far side of the dungeon turns into a welcome mat as you twist away all resistance and make a mad dash to safety.

You do the hokey pokey and you turn yourself aroundÂ… that's what it's all about!

You do the hokey pokey and you turn yourself aroundÂ… that’s what it’s all about!

Unfortunately, thanks to a few rough edges and some technical issues, Dungeon Twister is good at making you forget the things it does well. The technical issues range from slightly irritating to thoroughly exasperating. Even in some of the simpler tutorial missions, you may fall victim to a game freeze or two, which is always bad but is even more frustrating here because freezes tend to occur near the end of a match. A good match might last as long as an hour (or more, if you tweak the settings), so defeat by game crash can be hard to take. That’s especially true if you spare a moment to think back to how much of that wasted period you spent waiting for your opponent to settle on which move he wanted to make, and then watching as those moves played out on the board.

A pleasant visual presentation might have alleviated any number of minor issues, but the game is entirely bland. The camera is positioned far enough away from the action that you can see most of the dungeon, which is handy, but you still have to scroll left or right on the larger maps, and the characters are difficult to distinguish from one another unless you zoom in closer. In battle, warriors swing clubs and swords and books at each other, but none of their interactions are convincing. Between brawls, you have only grunts or growls and ambient noise (like dripping water or howling gusts of air) to keep you engaged. The only time the game exhibits personality is when a warrior does a little jig upon reaching safety on the opposite side of the board, but even that seems halfhearted.

If you play your cards right, you might just see the other side of this exhilarating battle.

If you play your cards right, you might just see the other side of this exhilarating battle.

One design decision is disappointing no matter how you look at it: the lack of local multiplayer. At least as much as something like Monopoly or chess, the core concept here derives most of its value from face-to-face competition, yet the PlayStation Network adaptation only lets you face off against a computer opponent or an online rival. There are matchmaking and invite options, but those pale in comparison to the affordable thrill that local multiplayer might have so easily provided. You should still get some enjoyment out of the game, in spite of that particular stumble, but the path that leads to boredom has been shortened, and that’s the wrong sort of twist for any dungeon.

By Jason Venter

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